Sunday, March 17, 2013



I get a little twitchy whenever I read about “undermatching” as a problem.

Broadly, “undermatching” is the claim that high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds often attend colleges that are “beneath” them academically, and that therefore they miss certain kinds of opportunities.  If only the elites were more thoughtful about reaching the masses, the argument goes, they’d do a better job of creating a pure meritocracy, and the talented tenth (or twentieth, depending on taste) wouldn’t be shackled to institutions built for the unwashed masses.


The whole framework around “undermatching” assumes a lot.

At one level, it assumes a really unproblematic caste system in higher ed.  On this view, the prestige hierarchy is written into nature to such a degree that community colleges that enroll high-caliber students are portrayed as problems.  They’re violating the natural order of things.  Or, more charitably, they’re symptoms of the failures of elite institutions to do their meritocratic job.

In my observation, anyone who puts too much faith in a Great Chain of Being is missing the point.  Having attended one of the elite colleges myself, I can attest from personal observation that what makes them different from other places isn’t so much academic rigor as a sort of unconscious affluence.  Students there don’t work thirty or forty hours a week for pay while they take classes.  And the assumption that “exclusive” equates to “high quality” is both antithetical to public higher education, by definition, and a reversion to the bad old habit of mistaking inputs for outputs.

Secondly, it neglects the very real academic excellence that can be found on many public campuses.    

Thirdly, it’s based on a really basic category error.  Let’s see if you’re smarter than a New York Times editor.  Find the flaw in the following:

Taylor attends Hypothetical Community College.
Hypothetical Community College has a 25% graduation rate.
Therefore, Taylor has a 25% chance of graduating.

If you think that’s an airtight syllogism, congratulations!  You have what it takes to edit the New York Times!

On the other hand, if you can spot the fallacy, then you might actually grasp the truth.  Not every student at a given college --any given college -- has the identical odds of graduation as every other student at that same college.  The overall graduation rate (leaving out for now that it only refers to first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students, which is a minority of community college students) reflects, among other things, the results from various subgroups of students, all added up.  If you disaggregate, you notice quickly that some subgroups do much better than the average, and some much worse.  

If Taylor is the kind of traditional-aged, high-achieving student that the Times has in mind, she’ll do just fine at a community college.  She’ll find her way to the honors program, join a learning community or two, run for student government, and quickly seek out the transfer counselor.  The fact that other students who come in with lower GPA’s, weaker academic preparation, less family support, and more need to work for pay graduate at lower rates really doesn’t affect her chances one way or the other.

But prophecies can self-fulfill.  If the parents of the Taylors of the world decide that community colleges and less selective four year colleges have “too many” students who, well, aren’t like Taylor, they’ll start to think of community colleges as Not For People Like Them.  And American political history is abundantly clear that once an institution is identified politically with the poor, that the institution will be impoverished.  

I’m not a fan of any strategy that involves writing off most students and most colleges.  Bright students choosing to attend college close to home, where they have support networks, is not a crisis.  Elite opinion suggesting that we simply write off open access public education for anyone with talent is a crisis.  

If public higher education isn’t “good enough” for Taylor, don’t pretend that giving Taylor a slightly better shot at Harvard solves the societal problem.  Make public higher education better, and let the Taylors of the world go where it makes sense for them to go.  Besides, sometimes talent comes in overlooked packages, the kinds that the Harvard admissions office might miss.  I’d rather offer opportunity -- real, high-quality opportunity -- to whomever wants it, and let the results tell us where the talent is.  You might be surprised.

One thing I've always wondered about American higher ed is how distance from childhood homes is somehow downplayed. Whenever a student is seen as a "rising star" that could attend prestigious institutions, it seems it is just assumed they'll go. It doesn't matter if the student is from Santa Fe, if Harvard calls they should respond. I feel this is less the case in Canada; if a strong student wants to attend a local school, regardless of the particulars, it's not seen as a bad thing at all. In fact, it could be a really good thing for everyone involved.

If a student is close to their family, whether due to poverty or otherwise, I don't any issues with them sticking close by.
Our son is sticking close by, attending the state school around the corner. He's a classic underachiever, but I know he'll get a good education. Plus we can afford it, and he feels more comfortable being in more familiar territory.

He decided on just state schools to apply to, in fact. Many of his classmates do as well, so our nearby state schools end up with a lot of good students who want to be close to home or who can't afford to go elsewhere. Many people overlook the cost of getting to these elite schools and the cost of "fitting in", buying clothes, traveling, etc.
Thanks for pointing out the fallacy in the "overmatching" paradigm, Dean Dad. There are groups that graduate from CC at VERY high rates, which are hidden in the overall rates. In my area, young Muslim women face a lot of conflict with their parents if they want to move away at 18, but much less if they move away at 20 (go figure). Another group is working class kids who need to learn the ropes of college in a series of steps rather than the full immersion of a flagship State U or selective liberal arts college with 25 hours per week of homework.
If you're talking about the Hoxby research that just came out, it should be pointed out that an elite college degree doesn't change outcomes much for people who start out with high SES, but it has big effects on people who didn't start out with high SES.

The question of should we make it easier for kids with lower SES to get into elite schools vs. should government make public schools better are two separate questions. Of course we should make public schools better, but that doesn't mean elite schools shouldn't look more carefully at how they do admissions, especially with respect to things like legacy, or financial aid. These policies aren't even competing for the same resources!
I also found the NYTimes article irritating. Nice rebuttal, DD.
You two need to read each other:
If you wanted, you could use me as a poster-child for the points you make in your post.

In spite of my "disadvantages," I am a tenured college professor. I did *not* attend an elite college for my undergraduate degree, and I did not think to apply to any, and I in fact didn't even apply to the state flagship institution but instead went to a less than stellar regional state school close to home.

But with that background, I can tell you that regardless of my successes, there is a definite opportunity cost for lower SES first generation college students who aren't encouraged to apply to and to attend the best possible undergraduate institution(s). And that is the case for the students I teach now, too, at a regional institution very similar to the one that I attended.

Now, sure, I got a good education, and so do my students. Academic rigor is less the issue than the broader constellation of resources and mentoring that come with going to a stronger institution with faculty who are active in their disciplines.

As a student, I managed to make some opportunities for myself and to take advantage of some lucky breaks. But let's be real: my path might have been much different, and potentially more successful, if I had applied to and attended a more respectable undergraduate institution. And the reason that I didn't even think to do so was because I honestly didn't know that I could. And that sucks.

This isn't about public education vs. private education: this is about acknowledging that regardless of our ideals, a student who goes to Podunk State U is not going to have the same resources as a student who goes to Harvard, and yes, that has an impact on what that person can achieve and/or the manner in which they achieve it.
I agree with Dr Crazy's points. His/Her experience sounds like mine.

I read the article linked to this blog. One variable not mentioned in the article or this blog is that regardless of a student's SAT scores and grade point average, if the student doesn't think s/he is smart enough to pass classes at Elite University, s/he won't even be interested in applying.

Such a student is going to college to be able to be ready for a job, and is not aware of the job opportunities at Elite U after failing is not an option.

My high school was not an academically prestigious one. It was academic/vocational mixed. So I had no confidence in my abilities or my academic preparation. I just didn't understand what the 97% SAT scores meant on a national level. Thought they were in my state. And no one I knew told me what they meant as far as my learning ability. Either the adults in my life didn't know either or didn't bother to mention it.

Maybe a little more public knowledge about what SAT and ACT scores mean as to ability to be successful in college might boost some students' self confidence and help them realize that they could do well at Elite U, no matter what their high school's academic reputation. And of course, recruiting helps.

I . . . guess. This may apply to the liberal arts, but it's utterly wrong for engineering. Some engineering schools are simply better than other ones, even if there are a lot of them which clear the bar of "good".

Grad schools look at undergrad institutions and adjust their interest in the student accordingly. Nowhere is this more obvious than in med school aps where multiple 4.0 students compete against each other. Transfer students, kids from historically black colleges, nothing special state universities all have to do better than their counterparts at institutions with more competitive institutions. That means higher GPA and test scores to get in.

The prestige of a school is part of the signaling that you buy by going to an elite. The ability to have a CEO as a former frat-mate or make connections with high level managers through your college friends or get internships where you meet influential people is another part of what you get as part of the deal. Low SES kids will never get exposed to those kinds of opportunities outside of elite schools and they deserve to have the chance to make the kinds of connections that will come from those experiences.
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